Five women enjoying a party in a garden
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Dress codes can often be confusing, like an invitation to a wedding requesting "casual cocktail attire." If you don't know what that term really means, you're not alone. Maintaining proper guest etiquette in a world with a growing array of social events isn't easy, so basic guidelines always help. Cocktail attire is often for an evening event less formal than black tie, yet not quite business casual. Tradition states ladies should wear a short, but somewhat formal dress and high heels. Times have changed, and cocktail can now include an array of styles.

The Basics

While traditional cocktail attire is classified as semi-formal, casual cocktail attire is somewhere between cocktail and business casual. Apparel like denim is still not appropriate, yet an expensive dress and pair of heels aren't necessary. This is where separates come in. A feminine A-line or pencil skirt always looks chic and a bit dressed-up. Pair that skirt with a silk blouse or sleek, form-fitting sweater and add a sparkling statement necklace. Tailored slacks or slim twill trousers in black or navy are another middle-ground option. Balance a more minimalist ensemble, such as black pants and a cream blouse, with pumps and statement jewelry to blend cocktail and casual.

The Event

After learning the dress code, take the event into consideration to craft the best possible ensemble. Attending a wedding can be a bit more dressed-up than going to a dinner party in a private home. For a casual cocktail wedding, create a polished look by opting for a short dress in a thick knit fabric. Classic cocktail dresses tend to be woven, which have more structure and a fancier look. A knit fabric is more comfortable, and still looks sophisticated with jewelry and heels. At a dinner party, try a slim trouser cropped at the ankle to show-off a great pair of pumps. A sheer chiffon blouse and camisole underneath is subtly sexy and feminine.

The Time of Day

Dressing for an event during the day should always be slightly different than going out after dark. Go for bright colors and prints to suit daytime events, like primary hues and stripes or floral prints. A blue-and-white striped day dress gets the perfect compliment from a red or yellow shoe. In lieu of heels for day, choose a patent leather or embellished ballet flat for a fancier feel. For casual cocktail at night, a modern midi-length skirt gets dressed-down by a basic short or long-sleeved T-shirt. Add a statement necklace and kitten-heeled pump for that casual cocktail look.

The Season

Proper etiquette is important when dressing for an event, but so is comfort. Layers are a great way to make sure you're prepared for anything, especially when transitioning between indoor and outdoor spaces. Keeping a light cotton cardigan or linen blazer on hand for summer events ensures you won't be chilly in an air-conditioned room. The best way to stay cozy in the winter is with a tailored coat. Whether a trench or pea coat is your style, invest in a versatile wool piece and have it tailored if it's not a perfect fit. This way you will still look polished outdoors even if the coat covers your entire outfit.